This summer I conducted a survey of a frontier farmstead site in Deer Isle, Maine. When I tell people I do archaeology in Maine, they frequently ask a range of questions from “do you get to sail on a yacht?” to “have you seen a moose?” The answer to both remains (unfortunately) no. Despite the lack of boats and bugs being the most prevalent form of wildlife, two fellow Penn students were willing to join me in “Vacationland” for a few weeks in July: Ashley Terry, a recent graduate of Penn’s MA program in Anthropology, and Elizabeth Clay, a fellow PhD student in Anthropology. I promised them beach lunches and ocean breezes, plenty of pine trees, and (of course) historical archaeology.
Before my Penn reinforcements arrived, I began removing brush from in and around two stone foundations at the site. What amazes me every time I dig in Maine is how spruce trees – almost without fail – grow and fall in/on historic foundations. Their roots make excavating tricky, and once fallen they cover a lot of ground. Having neither brute strength nor a chainsaw, I was resigned to the presence of four fallen spruce trees that lay across one of the foundations.
Luckily others were not so easily deterred: my parents (being in the area) made short work of the wayward spruce trunks with their chainsaw. In about two hours, we converted the downed trees into a brush pile and I was able to spot a “new” stone wall beyond the foundation. Broadening the clearing provided a valuable and different perspective on the historic farmstead and its construction. The phrase “you can’t see the forest for the trees” – or in my case, the farmstead – proved true.
Historic documents, including a 1798 map and tax valuations, indicate these foundations and the well on site were part of a farmstead occupied by William and Mary Foster and their 14 children from the late 18th into the mid-19th century. Shortly after their marriage in Massachusetts in 1778, William and Mary migrated and settled in Deer Isle, Maine. Historical records describe William as a “prominent” man in town, as he was a farmer, blacksmith, veteran of the American Revolution, and one of five men chosen to be the first town selectmen in 1789. The Foster’s farmstead encompassed some 200 acres on the northeast coast of the island on which the family built a house, barn, and a blacksmith shop by 1811.
These are the structures I hoped to map and identify archaeologically. When Ashley and Elizabeth arrived to Deer Isle, we began to survey the foundations and surrounding area. We worked from 8 am until 4 pm (and sometimes later) most days. Each morning on the site began with a spritz of DEET to ward off mosquitoes (jokingly called the Maine state bird) and by lunch time we were usually ready to escape the woods for the beach.
We found the typical range of historic artifacts while working at the Foster Farmstead: ceramic, brick, glass shards, iron, shell, bone, and charcoal. Iron was abundant, which makes sense considering William Foster’s trade. More unexpected finds included an axe, a game piece, a few pieces of leather, and a doll. The doll was especially startling to unearth on the first day. It is hard to describe the feeling one gets when a small round ceramic object is cleaned off and there is a white face staring back! Although the doll dates from the mid to late 19th century, it reminds us that William was hardly living alone on the frontier, although historical documents seldom mention his wife Mary and their children. The doll (among other evidence) suggests the family continued living on the property for some time after their initial settlement in the 18th century.
My summer fieldwork figures into a broader historical archaeology project examining how pioneers – namely farmers – adjusted to and modified the Downeast Maine landscape during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today dense forests cover about 90 percent of the state of Maine, obscuring traces of the agrarian past and making it hard to imagine the bucolic landscape frontier farmers like the Fosters sought to create. Thanks to the landowners of the Foster Farmstead site, to Ashley and Elizabeth, to my parents, and last but certainly not least, to the Penn Museum for helping make this field season a productive and memorable one.